If love is defined by that which gives without expecting anything in return, then I guess we love our cricketers.
We skip classes or call in sick to work to watch them roar, we wake up at odd hours of the night to cheer them on, we spend countless evenings fighting away on Internet bulletin boards defending our favorites against their critics, we feel elated by their success and crestfallen at their failure. And all this we do for total strangers, who would walk by us at best or get their security detail to shove us aside at worst, if our paths ever crossed. It’s all crazy, but then that’s what they say about love.
And so it’s only natural that when cricketers you have followed and adored for years ride away into the sunset, sadness will come. But then our fickle hearts discover new objects of affection, and a cricket hero becomes, like a former crush, consigned to the misty depths of forgetfulness.
Yet Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was not just another cricketer.
He was the sport. One of my earliest memories of Sachin Tendulkar — and memories of Sachin are always very vivid — was an exhibition game in Pakistan. The big guns were going through the motions as India moved toward another inevitable defeat. Then in to bat comes this child-man, all of 16, who decides to go for the win. He unleashes the most audacious of strokes at Pakistan’s best spinners, Qadir and Mushtaq, and scores 50-odd off only 18 balls, an almost unheard-of feat in those days, when a run-a-ball was considered a blinder.
In the process, he captures the imagination of a generation of schoolboys, myself among them, who, for the first time, saw the projection of their cricketing fantasies realized in the real world, cricket played as it is played in boyhood dreams — sixes, fours and never a step taken back. From that day on, Sachin became cricket. Cricket became Sachin. And that’s how it stayed.
He was hope. The nation switched its TV sets on when he came to the middle. They were switched off when he walked back. The pitch might crumble, the deliveries might swerve, the others might depart. But as long as he was there, thumping the ball through the covers off his back foot or angling to leg or going straight down the ground with a voluptuous bat-punch, there was always a chance.
The hope that he brought did not confine itself to the game of cricket. In a country where success in the public arena is more a matter of who you are than what you do, Sachin made us believe that it was possible, maybe not easy but possible, for a middle-class boy of no pedigree, armed merely with godly abilities and an obsession for perfection, to make it to the very top.
He was us. When he was a teenager, and so were we, we could contrast him with the dowdy, joyless uncles that were his teammates. “See, that’s the way we, the new generation, play the game – with a devil-may-care attitude. Those oldies, they just don’t have it.” When he grew up, and so did we, we would appreciate his maturity. “See, that’s how a man should be, responsible, stoic and yet supremely confident.”
When he became old (in his late 30s, he is considered ancient by the standards of modern competitive cricket), so did we. We would point to him diving on the field, or outhitting a younger colleague, and say, “See, that’s what our generation was about. Talent. Commitment. Those young whippersnappers, they just don’t have it.”
Now, no more. Sachin has retired from the one-day game, a format he revolutionized, leaving a giant hole in the ground. Fluttering around are burning scraps of memories — a pirouette hook, ferociously graceful, on a fast Australian pitch; a sandstorm in Sharjah; Shaun Pollock vanishing into the second tier; Shoaib Akthar smashed to pulp in that World Cup match of 2003; a magical over in the Hero Cup when the great man bowled, yes bowled, India to victory; and finally, another man — once a teen, then a young man and now middle-aged — silently praying, “God, if you are really there, not that I think you are, please let Sachin score a century today and let India win. Please.”
That middle-aged man I scarcely recognize in the mirror will still follow cricket, will still cheer India on, but somewhere, somehow, the personal connection has been irreparably broken. The war of cricket will still be fought. It’s just that I will not be in it.
So goodbye, dear Sachin. We shall not hunt together again, my friend.